Gender: Complementarian vs Egalitarian Spectrum

Gender: Complementarian vs Egalitarian Spectrum September 24, 2012

This is another of my “theological spectrum” posts. Previous examples include the arminocalvinist-spectrumcharismatic spectrum, a spectrum on hell and universalism, and an evolutionism-creationism spectrum.

With this particular spectrum it is fair to point out that many people and movements have gone on a journey along this spectrum in recent decades. Typically from more “complementarian” to more “egalitarian”.  One shouldn’t assume that any individual or movement (including the present author) is still on the same place on this spectrum they once were.

By now regular readers will know the drill, but let me explain for newer readers. The plan is simple, I post an outline of the various views I am aware of on a subject, in the form of a spectrum. I usually try to draw out some of the subtleties that different people may hold onto within the broader “camps” that traditional labels may hold. Hopefully the idea is that we can all see that it is unhelpful to say things like “all egalitarians hate the Bible” or “all complementarians hate women” and realize that in fact moderates in an “opposing” camp may have more in common with us than extremists in our own.

Once I post one of my spectrum posts, I encourage my readers to send me potential corrections, or comment on the spectrum I propose on their own blogs. Invariably I then edit the spectrum post to better reflect at least some of the views expressed.  It is important to stress, especially with a topic that is among the most divisive of all issues on which Christians disagree, that the purpose of this exercise is not for us to debate each other.  I will, however, as a follow up tomorrow post a list some of the key Bible passages cited on both sides of this debate, and  when I do I would value any additions to the list that I have forgotten to mention.

UPDATE LOG:  Thanks to Rachel Held Evans who emailed me a request to tweak the Strong Egalitarian section below, which she self-identifies with.  I have happily done so.  I also appropriated two short definitions from her site. Also thanks to Dave Warnock (no relation) who in an email strongly disagreed with my description of Strong Egalitarian and so I have also done some more tweaking there, he also pointed out that I was unfair to single out egalitarians for the charge of ignoring or distorting Scripture, and in Twitter he and others asked me to further tweak the section on Strong Egalitarians, and to mention the risk of abuse which I have done.

My goal at the moment, then, is to aim at helping our understanding of what our brothers and sisters in Christ really believe, rather than the straw views we may have constructed. Let me define two terms first, then outline my ideas for a spectrum.

According to the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, complementarianism “affirms that men and women are equal in the image of God, but maintain complementary differences in role and function. In the home, men lovingly are to lead their wives and family as women intelligently are to submit to the leadership of their husbands. In the church, while men and women share equally in the blessings of salvation, some governing and teaching roles are restricted to men.” (See also: “The Danvers Statement.”)

According to Christians for Biblical Equality, egalitarianism holds that “all believers—without regard to gender, ethnicity or class—must exercise their God-given gifts with equal authority and equal responsibility in church, home and world.

It is not quite as simple as an either/or choice, however.  In each of the groups I outline below there are people who love Jesus and want to follow him. Lets remember that as we respectfully dialogue about the different views.  So, here is my proposed Gender-role spectrum.  First in table form, then I will explain more below:

Roles in Church Roles in Home Roles at Work
Patriarchal Different Different Different
Strong Complementarian Different Different Similar
Moderate complementarian Some differences Different Some differences
Soft Complentarian Similar Similar Identical
Moderate Egalitarian Same in theory Similar Identical
Strong Egalitarian Identical Identical Identical
Extreme Feminism Different Different Different


1.    Patriarchal 

This position represents the view that men are in some sense superior to women and should rule over them in every area of life. People with this view would be uncomfortable with women holding any form of leadership position, even in the workplace. In fact some may well feel that women should not work at all if they have children, or even in some cases if they are married. It was not at all infrequent in the past for a woman to devote herself to the care of her husband as he provided for her financial needs from the moment they got married. Some in this camp might even question the need for women to be educated at college at all. In this camp, one potential strength is that at least everybody knows exactly what their role is, and there is no real room for discussion or debate about that. There is a real danger, however, as will be obvious to most of my readers that the average 21st Century woman is going to feel very unfulfilled living a lifestyle that for most of Western society stopped long ago (if it was ever really common).

I think it is important that other views outlined below are not confused with patriachalism, but note that even in this view, men need not actually look down on women, and women need not feel inferior, and proponents of this view would point to biological and psychological differences between the genders that they believe make us more suited to these roles. Egalitarians, who believe that all people are equal not only in value but in roles will strongly react to this view, and may genuinely believe that anyone who calls themselves a complementarian is in fact simply patriarchal, and trying to make that look nicer.

It is worth pointing out that many in this group, and some from complementarian positions below will carefully ignore or distort verses that seem to promote a more active role for women, just as one example, the Proverbs 31 wife seems to have had plenty of work on outside the home.

It has to be said, unfortunately, that patriarchalism, and in some cases other complementarian positions below has been misused by some contemptible men as an excuse for devaluing or oppressing women.  In some cases quite frankly it would not be going too far to say that some men have hidden behind some of these positions as an excuse for abuse.  I would stress, as would most whatever their viewpoint on these matters, that whatever doctrine she has been taught, a woman should never feel she should meekly submit to a verbally, physically, or sexually abusive man and should take the opportunities society now offers to safely escape such abuse  (see my post “your authority ends at the bedroom door“)

2.    Strong Complementarian

The word “complementarian” is intended to denote the idea that men and women have differing skill-sets, and hence differing roles that “complement” each other. So, even the strongest complementarian will probably be quite happy to joke “Why did God make women?” “Because men are so useless they really needed help!”

Thus, a woman will be honored because she brings something that in this view a man simply cannot, and vice versa. The key differentiator here from patriarchalism then is this strong desire to value women and to stress their equality of worth, and their equal status before God.  It is this that transforms what could be seen as an oppressive system, into one in which, at least in theory, there is a genuine valuing of the other, and each gender is encouraged to feel dignity, and bring their unique contribution.

Most strong complementarians will actually be egalitarians in the workplace (i.e. they will feel that women should have equal access to all jobs to men), though some may well feel uncomfortable about women taking up certain leadership roles even outside of church or home. I have seen some strong complementarians worrying about whether they should vote for a female candidate for political office, for example. They may well encourage women to, if at all possible, spend a prolonged period of time at home with their young children, but before and after these years they will encourage their daughters and wives to be fully educated, and pursue a career.   “Strong Complementarians” will often emphasize that women are homemakers and child-raisers, there’s often a pretty major overlap with “Patriarchalists” on the question of whether the woman works when children come along.  Many would say that the husband should provide and the wife raise the children. Strong complementarians may also encourage women with leadership roles in the workplace to lead in a way that doesn’t “dishonor a man’s masculinity” and men to be considerate of all women that they encounter taking on a protective, providing, nurturing role. Clearly some women who are in senior positions at work will struggle with this kind of behavior.

In the home, strong complementarians will emphasize “servant leadership” for men, and “submission” for women and will believe that these two things are entirely distinct. Thus, a woman is called only to submit to her husband, never to lead him, and a man is called only to lead his wife, never to submit to her.

In the church almost all forms of leadership will be closed to women. Elders, pastors, preachers, deacons will all be men. Women may be encouraged to fulfil certain roles in the church, but these will definitely not involve any form of leadership over men.


3. Moderate Complementarians

To a moderate complementarian, there is a clear distinction between the world of work and that of the family and church. They would normally stress that women can and should pursue full and active careers, and that many women will make excellent leaders in the workplace.  Women will be honored and valued whether they choose to stay at home with children, or whether they choose to work. Admittedly few moderate complementarian husbands will choose to become a house-husband, however, and there may well still be teaching that a man should take primary responsibility for providing for his family wherever that is possible.

Moderate complementarians will speak of different roles in the home, but, and this is vital for egalitarians to understand, when a complementarian talks of authority resting with the husband it has a number of very important caveats and limitations.

As John Piper recently tweeted,  “If you want to be a Christian husband, you become a servant, not a boss.”  To this way of thinking authority is not seen as a way to oppress or dominate a woman.  It is rather a call to put the woman’s needs first.

Rather than acting as some kind of “super majority” if there is a conflict over what is to be done, a moderate complementarian husband is much more likely to discuss a decision with his wife, listen to her preferences, then be the one to decide “right we are going to do what you proposed instead of what I suggested.

Moderate complementarian wives should find that their husbands regularly make sacrifices for them, without making them feel guilty for having “won the argument” or “made them do it.”  An example of this that is often mentioned is the way that Wayne Grudem took responsibility for a decision that would simultaneously jeopardize his career and help his wife’s health. The idea here is that if the husband willingly lays down his life for his wife as Christ laid down his life for the church, it should be an easy matter for his wife to follow him.

Secondly, a moderate complementarian is likely to readily acknowledge that the leadership of a husband has clear boundaries. So, for example they are likely to agree that  “authority ends at the bedroom door,”  they will stress that women should not submit to their husbands unthinkingly, certainly not if their husband leads them into error, and that in a healthy marriage a husband will honor his wife to such an extent that there will be areas of life that, whether you choose to call it “submission” or not, he will actually follow her. So, moderate complementarian wives will often be very much in charge of many aspects of home life.  In fact to an external observer a moderate complementarian marriage will look very much like an egalitarian one, because the notion that one partner is in authority will come up so rarely, and the wife will be so honored, that it will really look and feel like total equality.

In a moderate complementarian church, there will be some limitations placed on leadership roles for women. Precisely what those limits are will differ from church to church. Elders and pastors will almost always be exclusively men, but women will have a number of informal, and often formal leadership roles. This will include, but not be limited to the wives of male leaders.  Many such churches will have women deacons, and women may lead mixed small groups, contribute from the front on a Sunday, and in some cases preach.  These churches will honor and respect women, and in some cases women will feel more free to exercise ministry and leadership roles than in some egalitarian churches.


4. Soft Complementarian

A soft complementarian will see absolutely no distinction between the roles of men and women at work.  They will be likely to be equally happy for a man or a woman to care for children, and in most cases both will continue to work during child-rearing years. At home, any talk of differing roles will be minimal, and the concept of “mutual submission” will be spoken of. There may well, however, be some idea that the husband leads his wife, but it may not be clear what that really means in practice. In the church, the main leader will invariably be a man, however his wife (and the wives of other elders) will be very much involved in running the church, and may in some churches the leadership couples may both be called elders. The clue that this is not an egalitarian church, however, will be that in order to be in a main position of leadership, a woman will need to be married to a man who has a stronger leadership role than her. Although the husband and wife lead as a team, in the church there will be a clear recognition of the husband’s broader role, and while the wife may preach from time to time, the husband will be the one that does most of the preaching.  Single women, or women married to husbands who are not leaders may well be able to have other leadership roles, but these will not be elders or pastors.


5. Moderate Egalitarian

A moderate egalitarian still recognizes that there are some different instructions that the Bible gives to men and women. They will not despise or ignore the Bible, but they will interpret it differently to any complementarian position. In the workplace clearly there will be total equality. Men and women will either work or care for their children with no sense of guilt. Roles at home will be divided more equally, although the idea may remain that the wife is meant to relate to the husband as the church does to Christ, and the husband is to relate to the wife as Christ does to the church. In practice, however, the marriage will be a democracy of two (which leads to the obvious question, what happens when the two disagree?).

In theory all roles in a moderate egalitarian church will be open to men and women.  In practice, however, there is likely to be a clear imbalance in the way in which these roles are filled. In other words, it is still much more likely that a man will be the overall leader, and that men will do the majority of preaching.  In some egalitarian churches, it will not be clear why this is, and it may well in many cases be part of a legacy of a church that was once complementarian.  Without a biblical reason for the differing roles for men and women in some of these churches, some egalitarian women may feel undervalued by men.

Moderate egalitarians may need to approach the biblical text in a different way than complementarians, but many of them will value the Bible just as much, and remain committed to biblical inerrancy.  Gordon Fee is a good example of a moderate egalitarian whose approach to Scripture is respected by many complementarians.


6. Strong Egalitarian

Strong egalitarians believe that in every aspect of life, a man and a woman are equal not just in value but also in role and in opportunity. Thus women can and will lead congregations, and do everything that a man could do. In the home the marriage will be a marriage of equals, with mutual submission stressed. In practice there will of course be the need for leadership but men and women will take turns to be the one leading or the one led.  Some strong egalitarians will argue that in fact there is no need for leadership at all in marriage, and may believe that less authority is needed in other spheres of life as well.

To a strong egalitarian, the use of the word “identical” in the table above should not be taken as meaning that there is necessarily no differences between different people’s roles in the domains of our life.  Just that the opportunity for filling those roles should not be dependent in any way on someone’s gender. Thus, for example, most even strong egalitarians will agree that a local church will need a leader. They will simply argue that all suitably qualified individuals should be allowed to apply for such a role, and the most qualified be appointed without reference to their gender. Thus a man could easily be a member of a church where his wife is the pastor.  Many strong egalitarians would be happy using the label “feminist” to describe their position, especially if by feminist you simply mean a campaign for the right of women to have equal opportunities with men.

Some complementarians believe many or perhaps even most strong egalitarians  and feminists (and certainly the extreme group below) almost inevitably become detached from evangelical norms of Bible interpretation. In some strong egalitarian contexts, Biblical texts held dear by complementarians may be ignored, interpreted in such a way that they mean the opposite to what appears to be their plain meaning, or in some cases openly rejected, mocked or jeered.  I will never forget sitting in a debate many years ago between a complementarian and egalitarian when evangelicals booed the reading of a certain passage from one of Paul’s letters. It is exposure to such a rejection of Paul and even in some cases Jesus as “a man of his times” or even “a misogynist” that makes many complementarians struggle to understand this position.  Of course very few (I would really hope not any) Christian egalitarians would actually say Jesus was anti-woman but, the question many complementarians would ask is why did he not choose a female disciple if the egalitarian position is correct?  It is little wonder that emotions can get so heated about this issue when complementarians often believe all egalitarians reject the Bible, while many egalitarians believe that any complementarian view both demeans and oppresses women, and puts women at increased risk of abuse by their husbands. High stakes indeed on both sides.

However, after this post went up, Rachel Held Evans got in touch and said she self-identified with this group, but pointing to her series on Egalitarianism as evidence  she says she believes she has “gone to great lengths to deal with the relevant passages in a way that respects what they actually say, not just what I want them to say,” and that she does take the Bible very seriously.  I will let you be the judge of whether she has succeeded in that task, and it may still be that you conclude her approach to Scripture is different from yours, but we do well to acknowledge that those who think differently to us on this or other issues will usually have good intentions.


7 Extreme Feminist

As a response to what they perceive as thousands of years of male oppression of women, an extreme feminist will basically devalue men.  They may believe that women should do better than men in the workplace, home and church to compensate  for this injustice.  They will promote a strongly feminine environment in church, home, and work, such that men feel emasculated, unwelcome, or downright guilty for being men.  Of course, just as with the patriarchal viewpoint above, very few (if any?) will actually self-identify with this group, but there are definitely church contexts where traditional masculinity is devalued, and where the average modern man would report it was “feminized.”  The ongoing popularity of lads programs like Top Gear (and many women actually like it too!) demonstrates that outside the church men want to be men, and given the paucity of men in many churches we do have to ask the probing question,  have we all made our churches unwelcoming to the average unsaved guy?

About Adrian Warnock
Adrian Warnock is a medical doctor. He worked as a psychiatrist and in the pharmaceutical industry on clinical trials. He has been a Christian writer since 2003 and is a published author. Alongside his career Adrian also served on a church leadership team. He was diagnosed with blood cancer in May 2017 and is the founder of Blood Cancer Uncensored an online patient support group. Adrian is passionate about helping people learn to approach suffering with hope and compassion. Adrian qualified in 1995 with an MB BS medical degree from London University (in the USA this would be called an MD). Adrian also has post graduate qualifications in both Psychiatry (MRCPsych) and Pharmaceutical Medicine (MFFM and DipPharmMed). He studied theology through courses organised by Newfrontiers. You can read more about the author here.

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